SPOILER ALERT: Though this movie isn't necessarily one that lends itself to spoilers, I'll still give my usual reminder to watch the film before reading this review. This has long been considered a masterpiece of cinema, and it has become one of my personal favorites.
Have you ever wondered about the silence of God? As a Christian, I have many times. Maybe that isn't something that most people think about, but certainly anyone wrestling with issues of faith has to confront the fact that God doesn't speak in an audible voice. But all of us face death. The agony of coming to terms with it is something that most people surely do consider. Most films shy away from such subject matter. The Seventh Seal is not "most films."
This film was released in 1957 and was directed by the Swedish auteur, Ingmar Bergman. It follows a knight named Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) who has recently returned from The Crusades. We meet Block and his squire, Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), on an idyllic beach as they are on their return journey. Images of sky and sea fill the screen in immense beauty. Then, Block sits down next to his chess set. He turns around to see a pale-faced man draped in black robes. It is Death (Bengt Ekerot), and he has come for Block after long being at the knight's side.
Block challenges Death to a game of chess. If Block wins, his life is spared. And Death cannot take him while the game is played. So, even if he loses, at least he avoids his fate for a time.
The entire movie takes place in Sweden during the time of the Black Death. After the initial beachside sequence, we meet other travelers who are attempting to make their way while avoiding this ever-present plague. Specifically, we meet a troupe of entertainers who are barely scraping by, yet seem to still be in good spirits. There is the juggler, Jof (Nils Poppe), and his wife, Mia (Bibi Andersson). They have a young son, Mikael (Tommy Karlsson).
Jof routinely sees visions that are real to him but leave others skeptical. We meet him as he is having one such vision - this one of the Virgin Mary. He excitedly tells Mia about the vision. She plays along, but it is clear that she only considers this a passing fad. His visions will surely fade in time.
Later we see Antonius Block and Squire Jons as they enter a solemn church. There, they meet a painter (Gunnar Olsson) at work on the interior walls. Jons asks the painter what the faces he is painting represent. The painter says that it is the dance of death. It stands as a reminder to all who see it that everyone must face death.
If that seems morose, well, I guess it is. But I'm less concered with whether or not it is morose than I am with the truth of it. We all will die. That means we all have to come to terms with death. That discussion borders on the cliche, but most art doesn't handle it like The Seventh Seal. Here, the tough questions are asked. Answers are more elusive.
Antonius Block finds himself kneeling at an altar. Around him hang pictures of saints, a statue of Jesus Christ whose face shows the agony of pain and a devil spying on a human being. Block turns to see the confessional booth. There, a hooded man sits inside the booth. We see a momentary flash of the face of Death, but Block thinks that it must be the priest. Block goes to confess his sins.
Here he asks the questions that have confounded men for ages. He tells Death that he lives in a world of phantoms, isolated from his fellow men. Block says that he wants to die, yet he waits because he desires something more.
The sequence reminded me of a powerful interaction from Scripture between Jesus and a man whose son was possessed by a demon. The interaction takes place in Mark 9:14-29. The boy had been possessed by this evil spirit ever since he was a child. Understandably, the father had nearly lost hope that anything could be done for his son. Then Jesus comes and offers to help. The interaction that follows is fascinating.
Here we have a man interacting with the divine Son of God. In a moment of transparency, he lets on that he has experienced years of hopelessness - that nothing about his son's situation would change. Even so, you can see that he acknowledges that there is a chance that Jesus can heal his son. Jesus calls out his unbelief. Jesus is divine. He can do all things and nothing is beyond Him. He acknowledges that all the man must do is believe. What follows is one of the most moving statements in the entire Bible. "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"
That fact that Jesus doesn't write off the man initially shows that he understands our plight as humans. He understands that it is hard for us to believe. What God is looking for is a heart that wants to believe - that asks for help in believing. God wants a relationship. He wants us to come to Him with our doubts and struggles just like this man did.
We can extrapolate this to the questions of Antonius Block in The Seventh Seal. Yes, God does not speak in the ways we might expect. Because of that, it makes believing more difficult. As humans, we value the ability to test with our senses. But spiritual matters don't always work like that.
Again, I think God understands the plight of humanity. All He asks of us is to believe and, when we find it too difficult to believe, to ask for help in believing.
The power of this movie, in my opinion, is its ability to get us to the point of asking and considering these life-and-death existential questions while also continuing a compelling narrative. This movie is by no means boring even with all the philosophizing. The game between the Knight and Death opens the film on a tense note, and that game hovers over the entirety of the film. Many scenes had me on the edge of my seat. And the images that Bergman is able to bring to the screen are so beautiful even though they are often dealing with thoughts of death.
Block eventually is united with Jof and his family. In his malaise, meeting the troupe of entertainers brings momentary joy to his life of pain. As he eats wild strawberries with them, Block says that he will remember this peaceful time with the family. He vows to bring them to safety amid the dangers of the Black Plague.
They go through various endeavors and hardships all under the artful watch of Bergman. This film makes me want to see more of his work. Admittedly, I am just now going back and viewing the works of many of the classic masters. Bergman is certainly one of them, and I am woefully behind in my viewing of his filmography. However, only one watch of The Seventh Seal is all it takes to realize he's a genius.
I won't give away all the film's plot points, as I want to save some for anyone who hasn't seen the film. But I do want to briefly discuss the film's ending.
Block and Death meet for the ending of their fateful game of chess. Death asks Block about Jof and his family. At the same time Jof has one of his visions. He sees Block and Death in the midst of their game. Jof quickly encourages his wife to flee while Death is preoccupied with the game. Block knocks the chess pieces over, distracting Death while the family slips away. On the next move, Death inevitably wins. He tells Block that the next time he sees him, it will be to take him and his friends.
Block returns home to his wife, Karin (Inga Landgre), at their castle. There, Death finally comes for him. Away from the castle, Jof and his family are safe and sound. One morning, Jof looks to the hills to see Death leading Block and his followers along the hills in a macabre dance of death.
I think Jof is the key to analyzing this film. The film's ending leads many to believe that it is a bleak commentary on spirituality and end of life. Death comes for all, and Death knows no more of the purposes of God than we do. But I think there is more hope in this film than that. And it all comes from the character of Jof.
Yes, God is often silent - at least, if you're expecting an audible voice. But if you look for the signs, they are there. Jof sees visions of the supernatural throughout the film. It is Jof who "cheats" Death at the film's end. Jof has a greater understanding of spiritual matters because he is looking for them.
God may not speak in an audible voice, but He can still be heard. Death may wait for all of us, but that does not make our existence meaningless. On the contrary, we are all joined together in the vastly superior dance of life. If we listen for the silent whispers of the Divine, we will hear what we seek.
We just have to listen. And when we can't hear anything, we must ask for help in believing.
Note on content: In a few scenes we see a nude infant boy, but there is no sexually-explicit material in the film. One scene implies that a rape would have occured had Jons not intervened, but no physical act is shown. There is some violence in the film, and death is obviously a major theme of the entire movie. The film contains minor instances of profanity. Though there isn't a great deal of adult content in the film, it certainly is not a kid-friendly movie due to the difficult subject matter. Some of the scenes may be disturbing to younger viewers. Overall, I highly recommend this film as one of the greatest films I have ever seen.